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Arms joined hand to shoulder, like synchronized skaters, the dancers progress onto the stage single file with their backs to the audience. Supplicating postures send their eyes upward to the heavens, and they float atop effortless bourrées (movements across the floor en pointe) back and forth across the stage. A ballerina throws herself into the air and is raised, a crucifix, by two dancers who flank her on either side. Though their coordinated movements suggest experi- ence, they are in fact the newly united company of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, dancing in an open rehearsal at their studio on 152nd Street.
After financial shortcomings forced them into an eight-year hiatus, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is back on tour this month. The company began rehearsing in early August, learning 10 ballets in just 10 weeks.
Barnard professor Mindy Aloff first saw the Dance Theatre of Harlem perform in 1969—their first year—and vividly remembers current artistic director Virginia Johnson’s dancing. “She danced en pointe with an afro,” Aloff says. “Her hair was like an orb around her head.”
Johnson was one of a select group of ballet dancers who showed the world that African Americans could perform virtuoso classical ballet. “There were many issues concerning why would [sic] African Americans want to dance classical ballet,” Aloff says. “Even the orchestral music was thought to appeal to ancient white audiences.” The company’s founding, which was backed by the late George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein of American Ballet Theatre, coincided with the “dance boom when grants were plentiful and touring earned a big chunk of the company’s income,” Barnard professor Lynn Garafola wrote in an article published in 2000.
But in the following decades, federal funding for the arts began to decline. “The NEA had dried up, pretty much ... and community support was also tenuous, because the neighborhood was in financial trouble,” Aloff says. “They [DTH] didn’t have the money to have a full-time fundraiser. It was like trying to get a boulder up a hill.”
Arthur Mitchell, New York City Ballet principal and co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, first conducted DTH classes for 30 students in his garage at 153rd Street and Lexington Avenue to “leave a legacy to the community,” he said in a 1989 documentary. By the end of the first full year of classes, he had 400 ballet students. His arts achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which hangs in a memorabilia case at the school, refers to him as the “first and greatest black ballet dancer.”
The company performed many Balanchine works at first, but later mixed in more diasporic themes in an attempt to appeal to black audiences, Garafola wrote. Significant works included “Creole Giselle" and “Concerto Barocco.” This year, the company’s repertoire features “more new works, work by Balanchine, and some favorites,” Johnson says, including Donald Byrd’s “Contested Space” and Robert Garland’s “Return.” “Gloria,” a new piece choreographed by Robert Garland and set to “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” a hymn set by Francis Poulenc, is a nod to the spiritual, a cornerstone of Harlem musical tradition.
“It’s amazing that it’s coming so fast,” Johnson says of the upcoming tour. “I am very excited, but I am also always apprehensive ... I have full faith in these dancers. I am so proud of how they have been growing. But the true test is when the curtain goes up for the first time.” The company premieres in Louisville, Kentucky, and opens in New York in April.
Johnson, one of the pioneering DTH dancers, performed with the company for 27 years. Her proudest moment came about a decade into the company’s existence, when she noticed that the newer dancers acted like they belonged in the dance world. “It meant so much,” she says. “They said, ‘We’re doing ballet, and that’s what we do.’ They knew there was a place for them in this world. That made me feel so proud, that they knew they were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”
Before returning to DTH in 2009, Johnson served as editor of Pointe Magazine. “There is no one better than Virginia Johnson to be the director,” Aloff says. “She is a world-class dancer, and as the editor of Pointe Magazine, she had to deal with the public in a way that Arthur [Mitchell] didn’t. She had to understand things about marketing, about arts administration ... She is very personable, and unlike Arthur, she pulls her punches. She waits and listens. He was a magnificent talker, and she is a magnificent listener.”
The new company has 18 members, fewer than the original 44, which may reflect their anticipation of financial hardship. Still, financial struggles like those faced by the DTH are common in the dance world. “Dance companies experience bankruptcies far more than other arts organizations,” Garafola says. “Their endowments are very low, they have little money in the bank.” She stresses that the touring company is only one part of the organization, which includes an active dance school and a touring ensemble.
Samuel Wilson, a white dancer from Washington state who has danced with the ensemble for nine years, debuts as a company member this year. “DTH is an amazing company,” he says. “It’s really exciting to be part of the rebirth of this company— creating art uptown.”
In 1933, Kirstein, a famous patron of the New York City Ballet, wrote in a letter to a friend that Balanchine’s ballet school and company would ideally enroll “four white girls and four white boys, about 16 years old, and eight of the same, negros.” Though archaic in its language, this type of commitment to racial diversity remains foreign to most dance companies—including New York City Ballet, which has yet to employ a black female ballerina as a principal dancer. DTH’s long-awaited return ensures, in part, that these artists will continue to feel at home in the dance world.
The public is invited to attend Sunday matinee performances, which take place on the second Sunday of every month, beginning in November.
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